Today I am delighted to have Calah Alexander, one of my favorite online voices, guest posting. I appreciate Calah’s voice for many, many reasons but most of all because of the way she fearlessly and eloquently writes about her struggles. She is always humble, ever charitable, and remains open-minded. She never takes herself too seriously and has a wicked sense of humor. Plus, she’s quite simply a crazy talented writer. If you have yet to discover her blog, Barefoot and Pregnant, I highly recommend you go take a peek…
As a relative newcomer to the Catholic blogosphere, many of the women whose sites I’ve begun to follow have helped me to be more aware of the need to ponder… well, to ponder femininity. As women in a thoroughly modern world we’re bombarded on all sides by conflicting messages. One such message comes, as Betty Beguiles eloquently points out over at Fathers for Good, through the fashion magazines so favored today by young women and takes the form of tips on how to become attractive in order to gain “the power that comes with being ‘hot’.”
When I was growing up I was (albeit subconsciously) all too familiar with this idea. I wanted to look good neither for my own sake, nor to enhance my God-given feminine beauty for the sake of those around me, but so that men would fall at my feet. I wanted to have power over them, and, God help me, I got it. I was never a knock-out, but there were a few boys (in my youth group, no less) who would do my will with a snap of my fingers. And I reveled in it. Without consciously realizing it, I learned early on to equate beauty with power.
After I got married, though, I didn’t see any reason to look good anymore. Quite frankly, I didn’t see any real reason to get dressed at all. Beauty was pointless in a marriage. By vowing to obey my husband, I had lost my power over him forever, so there was really no point in changing out of my pajamas. So I didn’t. For nearly five years.
In those early days of our marriage, one of the greatest struggles my husband and I faced was his insistence that looking at other women was perfectly natural. He defended the practice, asking with no small amount of sarcasm whether I expected him to spend his life ignoring other women. Perhaps he should wear blinders? Maybe someone could engineer reverse X-ray glasses that added layers instead of taking them off? Or we could move to Dutch Pennsylvania, where there’d be no danger of women showing off anything besides finely trimmed bonnets? We had alarming fights over this, ranging from knock-down-drag-outs which ended with him sleeping on the couch to tear-filled pity-parties which ended with me on the wrong end of a bottle of wine and a box of chocolates. He couldn’t understand my objection. After all, he would say, it isn’t as if I’m the most gorgeous woman in the world. There are prettier women than me. Do I expect him to pretend they don’t exist?
When that line of questioning ended with him picking the shards of a flung wine glass out of his forearm, he switched tactics. There are men that I think are good looking, he would say. Do I pretend not to notice? Do I avert my eyes when talking to them? He knew my weakness for Jake Gyllenhaal and Josh Hartnett and (oh, swoon) the young Robert Redford better than anyone. Should he stop renting movies for me with those actors in them?
Lest you think my husband is a lecherous creep, let me assure you that he did draw the important distinction between looking at and lusting after. He’s never had a wandering eye, he simply didn’t see anything wrong with noticing and appreciating feminine beauty.
I felt betrayed by his willingness to appreciate other women. Why wasn’t I enough for him? So what if I had spit-up in my hair and wore pajama pants and slippers to the grocery store? I was the mother of his children and those were the hazards of the trade. Shouldn’t he appreciate that by looking past the baby food caked to my cheek and see the beautiful girl I used to be? Although I couldn’t put it into words at the time, what I was really upset about stemmed less from my feeling betrayed than from my misunderstanding of beauty. In my mind, I had lost the power that comes with beauty; I had sacrificed it on the altar of motherhood and those other women, those beautiful women that my husband noticed, they now had that power that used to be mine.
Then we moved to Las Vegas. Suddenly we went from a small community where traditional Catholicism and strict appreciation for virtue were the norm to Sin City, the sex and smut capital of America. On one of our first weekends here, we drove to the Strip in the evening to see the dancing waters at the Bellagio. Once there, my husband carried our two-year-old daughter on his shoulders, holding my hand as I waddled beside him, heavily pregnant. The entire time we were on the strip the “card-flippers,” seemingly oblivious, shoved picture after picture of naked prostitutes into his face. The idea of “appreciating” beauty took on a whole new meaning, as did the idea of beauty being a source of power.
Those prostitutes on the cards were beautiful. Stunning, even. Yet they were as naked and exposed as the irony of their faces and bodies littering the ground like so many discarded advertisements. If you wanted, you could pick up a handful, rifle through them, and choose which one you wanted to spend the night with. They were objects, willing to let themselves be used, fleetingly, for monetary compensation. There was no power. There was only bondage.
My husband and I saw it for what it was: the culture of death. For the first time the inevitable result of our culture’s concept of beauty was clear to both of us, heartbreakingly clear. We hurried back to our car, shielding our daughter between us.
Not long afterward, he told me that he had begun attempting a “diet of the eyes.” He said that he wasn’t really sure that looking at other women was a sin, but that there was nevertheless an element of the voyeuristic about it. In “appreciating their beauty,” what he was really doing was treating them as objects. He wasn’t seeing a woman with a unique soul precious to God. He was seeing a nice pair of legs or a truly fabulous bottom. He admitted how difficult it was, but for the first time his failings didn’t break my heart. It didn’t hurt to hear that he failed. All I felt was pride in him for the attempt, and gratitude that God had opened both our eyes to the danger that comes with misunderstanding beauty.
Then, strangely, I myself felt something resembling shame. I had spent the last several years lamenting the fact that my husband wanted to look at other women, and yet what had I given him to look at? I spent my life in sweatpants and t-shirts, my hair pulled back in a dirty bun, covered in spit-up and baby food and, on bad days, poop. I had always assumed that all this came with the territory of “stay-at-home-mom,” but did it really have to? Was I really sacrificing my beauty on the altar of motherhood, or was I giving up attempting to be beautiful because I felt I would no longer gain anything by it?
Although my inner feminist railed at me for catering to a man and my inner Puritan chastised me for vanity, I started doing little things to improve my appearance. Nothing earth
-shattering, really, not even showering every morning. But instead of pulling my hair back without dragging a brush through it first, I got up in the morning and brushed and braided my hair. I started wearing colorful head scarves, sweatpants that were slightly more flattering, shirts that fit better, and even earrings. If the baby spit up on me, I changed my shirt. When I went shopping I bought dresses and skirts instead of jeans and t-shirts.
And my husband noticed. In a very rare occurrence, he complimented me on my hair. He started making jewelry with a certain outfit of mine in mind. His face lit up a little more when he walked in the door at night, his smile was a little warmer, his hand rested on the small of my back for just a little longer. I discovered, to my surprise, that looking nice for my husband wasn’t giving me that false sense of power that I had grasped at for all those years. It was giving me an opportunity to make him smile. It was giving me another way to show him that I cared.
And you know what? It feels good. It feels good to be feminine, to wear a skirt once in a while, to remember that God made me with a certain beauty. It feels good to be appreciated and noticed, and to know that while my husband walks around on campus surrounded by scantily-clad undergraduates trying his best not to let his eyes wander, he can look forward to coming home and putting his arms around a wife who isn’t wearing his spit-up covered shirts, sporting baby food in her tangled hair, or stomping around grumpily because she accidentally caught sight of herself in the mirror. He can look forward to putting his arms around a wife whose clothes are clean, whose hair is neat, and who has a smile for him. I love knowing that my husband is only looking at me, and I love making the effort to give him something good to look at. Contrary to popular feminist wisdom, my husband is worth it. And, to my surprise, my soul isn’t in chains of oppression after putting on a skirt for the sole purpose of making my husband smile. My soul is just fine.